I’m going to admit up front that I’m nervous about writing this post. It’s going to bring up an uncomfortable topic, and I worry a bit about how it will be perceived. But I feel like it’s important to get it out there, so I’m writing it anyway.

Recently a friend bought me a T-shirt that says: “Never Underestimate An Old Woman With A Computer Science Degree.” You can see the image here. I love this shirt, and I posted a picture of it on Facebook. More than one of my friends questioned whether the phrase “old woman” applied to me, and I’m appreciative of their sentiments. And, yes, I’m 48 and not everyone would consider that old. But some would, and I happily use the label for myself. The Facebook post and the various reactions to it got me thinking about why. Today I think I have an answer.

I’ve written previously about the fact that I’ve become a mother figure to my students. But what I didn’t say in that post or any other is why I like that, or, more clearly, what situation that has removed from my life. When I was closer to my students’ age, it was difficult for me to express my appreciation and enthusiasm for them. When I first starting teaching I was less than five years older than my students. That’s a small enough gap that we were essentially contemporaries. And most of my students have always been men. And heterosexuality is the most common sexual orientation. The combination of those things meant that an enthusiastic response to my students could, by some, be interpreted as a sexual advance. Whether my students were interested in me sexually, that’s an uncomfortable and inappropriate thing to have in the classroom. So I unconsciously/subconsciously held my students at a distance. It was only once I got older, became a parent, and started to see my students as my children that I changed my behavior. By then I was so much older than them that there was little room for misinterpretation. The age gap has put me in a situation where I can safely feel closer to them, so it’s no surprise that I embrace it.

What recently dawned on me, and is the inspiration for writing this post, is that the same thing doesn’t hold for my colleagues. I’m equally enthusiastic in my reactions to colleagues, but there is no guaranteed age gap to remove ambiguity like there is with my students. And most of my colleagues are men, and heterosexuality is the norm. So I can sometimes tell that colleagues aren’t sure how to interpret my happy, silly, and teasing reactions to them. To their credit most of them assume that my intentions are purely platonic. But there are a few who aren’t sure, and it makes me unhappy to have any discomfort between us. Of course, short of switching to a field that is majority female where the assumption of heterosexuality would shield me or changing the kind of person I am, there’s no real solution. But it does help me to understand how I might perceive aging to be a good thing.